books, Women Writers

“Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee

“Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.”


In “Pachinko” Min Jin Lee tells the epic story of four generations of a Korean family as they struggle for identity and place in a world of constant oppression and long-lasting bigotry. In the early 1900s poor laborers Hoonie and Yangjin run a small boarding house in rural Korea in a small island village dependent on fishing and trade. Their greatest pride and joy, Sunja, is their only child to survive infancy. When Sunja unexpectedly becomes pregnant, the family’s course is altered, becoming inextricably bound with Japan. Japan is a rising power in Asia, attracting if not welcoming immigrants with the promise of a better future, a future that is all but unattainable.

“Pachinko” deals heavily with relationships, both familial and romantic. Lee and her characters return again and again to the balance and often-times juxtaposition between passion and partnership. Nearly every generation has a character passionately drawn to someone who, if not downright toxic, is certainly not a good match. Conversely, each generation has at least one true union, in which individuals find their partner, a person with whom they make a stronger whole.

“Isak knew how to talk with people, to ask questions, and to hear the concerns in a person’s voice; and [Sunja] seemed to understand how to survive, and this was something he did not always know how to do.”

Sunja is a true survivor, making hard choices and the odd mistake, but always fighting to keep her family safe and strong. She is the heart of the family and the heart of this saga.

Even more than relationships, “Pachinko” makes personal an immigrant experience. Sunja and her family, no matter how pure of heart or financially successful they become, will always be outsiders. As ethnic Koreans in Japan, Lee’s characters face undying prejudice.

“Japan will never change. It will never ever integrate gaijin, and my darling, here, you will always be a gaijin and never Japanese. Nee? The zainichi can’t leave, nee? But it’s not just you. Japan will never take people like my mother back into society again; it will never take back people like me. And we’re Japanese! I’m diseased. I got this from some Japanese guy who owned an old trading company. He’s dead now. But nobody cares. The doctors here, even, they just want me to go away. So, listen …Become so rich that you can do whatever you want. But…they’re never going to think we’re okay.”

I didn’t take this portrayal of Japanese prejudice as an indictment specific to Japan, nor did  it read as a broad denunciation of all Japanese people. To me, and this may well be my Anglo-American lens, Lee had a much more universal message; “Pachinko” was about jingoism, prejudice, immigration, and fear. It’s messages were relatable and resonant for countries across the world and peoples across time. Lee’s efforts to humanize the face and struggles of immigrants are relevant here and now. Where the writing at times may have faltered, the family saga and the accessibility of the struggle carried the day and made this a worthwhile and enjoyable read.

Thank you to Grand Central Publishing for providing a complimentary Advanced Review Copy in exchange for a fair and honest review.

“Pachinko” will be released in the United States on February 7, 2017.

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